SpaceX has secured a contract to launch the uncrewed X-37B spaceplane, a secret military spacecraft created by the U.S. Air Force that’s kind of like a compact space shuttle, but whose functional purpose is ultimately kept under wraps. The Verge reports that SpaceX’s launch services for a launch of the X-37B in August atop a Falcon 9 were confirmed via a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.
The X-37B has been to space before; it actually just got back to Earth last month, so it won’t be out of action for long. That was the spacecraft’s fourth mission, during each of which it has carried secretive payloads to orbit, over fairly long stretches (the last mission ran 718 days.)
Built by Boeing, the X-37B is also called the ‘Orbital Test Vehicle,’ and it launches vertically strapped to a rocket but then lands like a traditional plane, much like the original reusable Space Shuttle. It’s a lot smaller than the Space Shuttle, however, and can carry relatively small cargo loads in its 7×4-foot storage bay. An X-37C has been announced by Boeing, with a passenger capacity of up to six astronauts.
This is SpaceX’s first launch of the X-37B, which has been sent into orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for each of its prior missions. SpaceX’s role as a military launch provider is a huge boon to its ability to operate profitably, so scoring a secret spaceplane contract is a big deal for the private space company.